Violence In Games - Myth And Misconception

The subject of simulated violence in games and its effect on society is a perennial and emotional subject. Even amongst veteran gamers, which one might suspect would be a case of preaching to the converted, the issue can be debated fiercely enough to ignite flame-wars on any number of forums.
I present here my own thoughts and feelings on the matter in an essay first posted on the Quake 3 World Forum's Level Editing section. Should you wish to quote this essay in whole or in part, please ask my permission first.
I look forward to the day when the observations contained herein are obsolete.

I've read, thought and talked about this subject many many times, but I've never posted on a forum about it, so bear with me.

What I feel compelled to remember in this debate is the fact that this is in no way a new phenomenon. The earliest example I can cite from the modern era is the treatment recieved by comic books and their writers in the 1950's. Pulp horror and sci-fi had existed for decades, but only by then had they became popularised and, more importantly, sold to children. For many years, government bodies imposed ridiculous amounts of censorship on comics, dictating to the writers every detail of their work that was or was not acceptable for publication. Sensationalistic 'public information' newsreels were contrived showing interviews with supposedly traumatised kids. But in spite of the best efforts of the authorities, comics were bought in increasingly vaster numbers and became vital avenues for expressing ideas and commentary for the sub-culture of the 1960's. Today, no politician would waste his time attacking them. Graphic novels are big business, are read by a comfortably wide range of people and agegroups and are even the basis for high-profile movies. So they're mainstream, they're 'normal'. And the hordes of demented, socially maladjusted fans we were warned about back then have completely failed to materialise.

The same pattern occurred in the early 1980s in Britain ( and possibly elsewhere, though I'm not sure ). When video technology was first mass produced, an epidemic of low-budget movies with lurid subject matter spread all over the country. These movies contained huge amounts of explicit porn and, more significantly, horror. They were dubbed by the infamously reactionary British press as 'video nasties'. Much effort was made to censor this material, ban it and actually destroy it. Politicians made speeches, film crews made documentaries and newspapers wrote front-page headlines. Much hysteria ensued. The fantastic irony is this: video nasties were available almost exclusively on the inferior format of VHS. The technologically superior Betamax was immune. What happened has gone down in marketing history. The overwhelming majority of VCR sales were for VHS, because people wanted to watch their collections of 'nasties'. Betamax fell by the wayside and became a joke, the entertainment equivelant of the Dodo. This gives unequivocal proof of how out of touch the authorities actually were with their socially-responsible posturing and also how irresistable is the force of mass popularity.

This has happened again and again through the late 20th century. After videos, heavy metal.
Then: "Play your Black Sabbath records backwards ( this is in the days of vinyl, kids. Ask your parents what I'm talking about :] ) and you'll hear the voice of Satan!"
Now: Pink Floyd compilations are great Father's Day presents and ageing rockers are figures of fun.

What about Roleplaying Games?
Then: Tom Hanks stars in the embarrassingly cheesy 'Mazes And Monsters', the plot of which implies roleplaying drives you to suicide.
Now: Warhammer earns enough cash to run a small country and half the postgraduates in Britain own a copy of the 'Vampire - The Masquerade' rulebook.

Currently, it is the computer game that is the great media evil. But only because it is still in the process of encroaching on the mainstream and most people look at the flash and gib of Quake III, then at the impenetrable passion of the player at the controls, and cannot understand. Parents are always threatened by anything which communicates to their children at a deep level that they themselves cannot. That is why all of the right-wing propoganda and evidence is geared to play on parental fears and not aimed at the actual players. When it is not just a schoolkid who turns up at my local internet cafe to play Counterstrike, but when he brings his dad along too, that things are really progressing. I see it happening already.

The arguments and evidence to support the 'games make our children into killers' movement is sloppy, minimal and entirely subjective. After the Columbine incident, which affected me more than I expected, Charlton Heston made statements relating to the goth culture that he despises so much. While questions were being asked about the dubious gun laws in America, Mr Heston had the brilliance to suggest that the black trench coats that were the main identifying item of the goth schoolkids should be banned. While 9mm calibre assault rifles should not. That is not only prejudiced, it is absurd.
Not long after, a documentary aired in Britain ostensibly investigating the sinister reallity of computer games. The program was poorly informed and relied entirely on personal anecdote and opinion. The journalist responsible, whose name I unfortunately forget, was quite obviously not personally concerned with the issue at hand or any of the other participants. He was young and ambitous and seemed to have chosen the most emotive topic he could, thereby making it easier to gain a sympathetic audience. Again, the entire exercise was geared towards scaring parents with piecemeal information and sensationalistic techniques. It was a cynical career move. Amongst the worried parents and right-wing survivalists, not one child or gamer was interviewed in the program. The best sequence was when two supposed scientists ( social scientists, i.e. people without proper qualifications ) conducted an 'experiment'. Having lost the argument a while ago that playing games turns ordinary people insane, a more subtle danger was proposed: immediately after a deathmatch, calm and decent folk become unusually aggressive. To test this theory, the experiment used punishment ( freezing water ) and reward ( jellybeans :/ ).
Not one scientist would, or did, authenticate this rubbish as anything other than untested, unregulated and unempirical. It's value as scientific evidence is nil. It's value as provocative T.V. was much greater.

At the end of the day, I believe this issue pivots on the understanding, and more often the lack of understanding, of profound human psychology - comic books do not make psycopaths; horror movies do not make psycopaths; rock bands do not make psycopaths; computer games do not make psycopaths...people make psycopaths. That is how it happens and has done since human beings have behaved as social animals ( according to most anthropologists that would be perhaps 2 million years ). It was not the music of Marilyn Manson or Korn that compelled Scottish teenager Nicola Raphael to take her own life, it was the vicious school bullies who made her life unbearable misery for months that should be held up to public scrutiny. That, of course, will not happen. It was not the movie 'Natural Born Killers' that made a young man go berserk with a handgun in a shopping mall, but his father who not only beat him daily for non-existent transgressions but also took his son to the closet and forced him to choose the belt he would be bludgeoned with. It is the father at whom our social execration should be justly directed. Instead, his name is forgotten while the title 'Doom' is on the lips of every right-winger from Texas to Fleet Street.
And it must not be forgotten that we are responsible too, whenever we turn a blind eye to abuse of the innocent. This is a beautiful world we are part of that is tragically soiled with the excrement of human failure. We have great music, we have great artists and of course, we have Quake. But we also share a planet with ignorance, hypocrisy and brutality. And the kinds of incidents I described are being enacted at the very moment you are reading these words.

In truth, this persecution is not really about the threat of burgeoning serial killers. Fundamentalists see all such things as a threat, not to society as they would have us believe, but to their own selfish world view. It is not the material that is dangerous to them, but the people it effects. For nothing is more dangerous to a repressive institution than people who can think for themselves. And young, independently minded folk are always the first ones to get involved in stuff that's cool - like rock music and roleplaying. And Quake.

As members of a rich and still youthful cultural phenomenon, the best thing for us to do is simple...keep playing. Just as with the much harrassed comic books of the '50s or the video nasties of the '80s, continuous exposure to the mainstream and increasing artistic sophistication on the part of the developers will result in computer games being wholeheartedly accepted by society. Then the ignorant, prejudiced minorities will have to find something else to persecute for being inspiring. Take heart, all makers of the gaming world: every mesh we mould, every brush we lay, every frag we score moves us further out of the dark ages of social repression and closer to a healthy society. And we'll have a lot of fun doing it.

"Times are not more violent, they're just more televised" - Marilyn Manson

"The only thing that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing" - Edmund Burke

"Well they tell you you're damned and prepare your shame / But longevity hear my name!" - Fields Of The Nephilim